The Veterans Affairs Inspector General’s office on Thursday confirmed it will look into whether the department’s secretary worked to discredit a congressional staffer who reported being sexually assaulted at a VA medical center last fall.
Democratic lawmakers from the House and Senate had requested the investigation after news reports of the alleged campaign by VA Secretary Robert Wilkie against Andrea Goldstein, a senior policy adviser on women veterans issues for the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
In a letter to the lawmakers, Inspector General Michael Missal called the issue “a high priority for our office” and promised a full accounting of their findings when completed. The letter was first reported by the Washington Post.
A department insider says Robert Wilkie actively worked to discredit the woman, even as he publicly promised a fair investigation.
Wilkie has denied the charges, calling them “a breach of honor.”
Earlier on Thursday, following an appearance before the House Veterans’ Affairs Committee to discuss the department budget, Wilkie committed to testifying before the panel in coming weeks to discuss sexual assault and harassment policies within VA, adding that he hoped that would provide an opportunity to clear the air on the controversy.
In September, Goldstein claimed that an unidentified man groped her and propositioned her in the main lobby of the Washington, D.C. VA medical center, which sits just a few miles away from Capitol Hill.
She also complained that staff was slow to react when she reported the incident, only taking the issue seriously once she brought in nearby law enforcement officers. At the time, committee Chairman Mark Takano, D-Calif., called the incident indicative of a misogynistic culture within VA, and demanded an overhaul of VA anti-harassment policies.
Wilkie publicly promised a full review to be handled by the inspector general’s office.
But a department insider with knowledge of the case told Military Times earlier this month that Wilkie for months looked for damaging information against Goldstein, in an effort to discredit her story. The committee also received a similar complaint about his secondary investigation.
Last month, after the inspector general closed the case without charges, Wilkie wrote to Takano that “we believe that VA is a safe place for veterans to enter and receive care and services, but the unsubstantiated claims raised by you and your staff could deter our veterans from seeking the care they need and deserve.”
The department is planning for more than $243 billion in funding next year, its highest budget ever.
Wilkie later retracted his use of the term “unsubstantiated,” but the phrase drew the ire of both lawmakers and veterans advocates, who called it unproductive and vindictive.
On Thursday, Wilkie said he welcomed the inspector general looking into the case further.
In a statement, VA spokeswoman Christina Mandreucci said in regards to the new investigation that “VA will cooperate fully, just as the department did with the initial investigation.”
She also added that VA “remains focused on maintaining a welcoming environment” for women veterans. “The department has made significant progress in serving women Veterans in recent years and now provides an array of women’s services, including comprehensive primary care, gynecology, maternity, specialty care and mental health services.”
The new investigation comes at a time of increased leadership turmoil at the department. Just days before the allegations against Wilkie surfaced, he announced the firing of the second-ranking official within VA, Deputy Secretary James Byrne.
Wilkie has said the decision was “a simple business decision” and not a sign of infighting, but individuals close to Byrne have characterized VA headquarters as chaotic and mismanaged. On Thursday, Wilkie again pushed back on the idea that the recent controversies could undermine work at the department.